What happens in our brain when we listen to the rhythmic pace of a song or when, at the traffic light, the light is red and we are trembling awaiting the green? How do we perceive such an abstract feature of the world? For the first time in humans, an imaging study shows that in a specific area of the brain, the so called “supplementary motor area (SMA)”, a time map exists.
The study, conducted by the team led by SISSA Professor Domenica Bueti and published in PLOS Biology, shows that distinct portions of the SMA, a region of the cerebral cortex important for both motor preparation and time perception—respond preferentially to different durations. The portions of the SMA responding to similar durations are in close spatial proximity on the cortical surface according to an anterior-to-posterior spatial gradient.
The most anterior portions of SMA are greatly active for the shortest duration (200 ms), while the most posterior bits are active for the longest duration (3 sec), the intermediate durations led to the activation of the cortex between those extremes. These novel findings, which are the result of a collaborative effort between SISSA and research institutions in Japan, Switzerland and the Netherlands, are important to gain insights on the computational architecture underlying time perception and they also open up new perspectives to the study of temporal cognition.